MIT Senior House is Important

An open letter to Chancellor Barnhart, responding to http://news.mit.edu/2016/senior-house-announcement-0610 wherein MIT decided to prevent first-year students from living at Senior House, a dorm with 40% LBGT students.

I am very worried about how LBGT first-year students will be impacted by the decision to prevent first-year students from living in Senior House. My perspective is that of an MIT alum (Course 3/8 BA 2005, Course 3 PhD 2010) who did not ultimately live at Senior House, but its existence strongly impacted my decision to attend MIT as well as my experience as a student.

The lack of a dorm that felt like it was a safe and comfortable place to be myself was one of the primary reasons I did not go to Caltech, and I imagine that some prospective MIT students who identify as LBGT will now choose other schools. Indeed, I’d have a hard time recommending that someone like me go to MIT without a place like Senior House creating a living environment that is not just accepting, but welcoming.

To be celebrated, rather than merely tolerated, for being gay is a crucial counterweight for those of us coming from extremely homophobic, repressive, and even violent pre-college environments. It is not enough for recently “out” or still-closeted LBGT individuals to feel tolerated. They may survive under these circumstances, but they will thrive by being with role models (i.e., upperclassmen) who have gone through the same thing and learned to feel comfortable in their own skin. No administrator or even GRT could have the same impact as a fellow student who you can look up to and say: “that’s who I want to be.” Such role models abound in living communities with a concentrated LBGT population such as Senior House.

I’m concerned for the incoming LBGT first-years, like I once was, more of whom will now end up in living situations where while they may not be aggressively discriminated against, they definitely won’t be welcomed because of their minority attributes. And I consciously say “may.” Although MIT has a vibrant LBGT community and support structure, I nevertheless know many people who waited to come out as gay until after graduation — in several cases because of hostile living situations. Although profound progress has been made in the US with respect to LBGT rights in the past 10 years, there is still work to be done even here at MIT, as illustrated by the Living Pink guide where, for instance, only 17% of McCormick residents even know an LBGT individual in their dorm.

Senior House was the first time I had ever been exposed to a group that I could look up to — clever, nerdy, classy, sassy, successful — and which didn’t just tolerate or not care about my sexuality but instead actually celebrated it as if it automatically made me part of the misfit family. That’s important. I didn’t get that anywhere else, and it was special to me even though I didn’t end up living there.

All LBGT first-years should be given the opportunity to be part of a community who they can relate to and where they feel comfortable expressing the parts of themselves that don’t mesh well with the nerdy, but otherwise quite normative, culture across MIT. Coming out is a scary time, full of doubts and fears that others will judge you before they know you.

I recall during my own CPW, trying to secretly go to the LBGT office at that time in building 14N, fearful that if anyone saw me going there I might be subjected to violence or discrimination. Thankfully, MIT ended up being better than that, but I think you are fooling yourselves if you think first-year students uniformly know that they are safe from violence coming in, or have the emotional fortitude to stand up and thrive despite the daily micro-aggressions against LBGT individuals at MIT on their own. Finding that MIT had a place where people understood that fear and wanted to help was game-changing for me.

I doubt that you will consider reversing your decision now that you have made it so publicly. I certainly hope you have better data and analysis than was publicly presented, which seems to flagrantly conflate correlation and causation and ignores the background of incoming students as if having a disproportionately high representation of disadvantaged groups would have no impact on outcomes. And I hope you have a serious plan for replacing the support provided by Senior House which you are voluntarily destroying. I fear that you do not, and simply expect these vulnerable incoming students to figure out how to cope on their own.

Sincerely,
Brian Neltner